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Candy, Cigarettes, Morning After?

  • March 7, 2012
  • RPh on the Go

Vending machines have carried all kinds of chips, snacks, drinks, and OTC pharmacy items, but the one located in the student health center at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania raises the ante to a controversial new level. For a reasonable $25, students and faculty can buy a single dose of Plan B out of a dispenser.

The FDA is investigating to be sure the machine is complicit with laws, but the machine is located in an area inaccessible to the general public and the drug is over-the-counter. Since it will not abort an existing pregnancy and can only prevent pregnancy from starting, it is considered a contraceptive. Contrary to popular misinformation, it is not akin to an abortion pill.

Before making the decision to allow the dispenser, college administrators verified that every student on campus was over the minimum age required by law for purchase, 17. It’s not new, exactly; the machine has been in place for about two years. The story just recently hit the news, part of a storm of controversy over the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to refuse funding to Planned Parenthood and the decision’s quick reversal under a backlash of public opinion, followed almost immediately by the Catholic Church’s objections to providing birth control to its employees through insurance.

OTC vending machines full of first aid supplies, along with condom and tampon dispensers, have been common since the fifties, when cigarette machines were equally common. Cigarette machines have become increasingly rare, since a vending machine cannot verify the age of the buyer. The age limit for Plan B pill raises similar concerns.

Shippensburg students seem to appreciate the machine. School proponents point out that rape victims might find a quick purchase at a machine less difficult than the shame associated with a trip to the drug store in the tiny town, but some wonder if the other side of the coin is that easy access to the drug may deter rape victims from seeking medical care. Not that rape victims are the only women who may choose to purchase the pill. It’s certainly too expensive to be used as a primary contraceptive, but things happen. Condoms break, pills are skipped, unexpected opportunities arise (no pun intended).

Plan B comes in a one-dose package that includes a single pill. Overdose or misuse is unlikely. What do you think? Good idea? Bad idea? There may be some merit to the argument that medicine dispensed by a machine does not come with human interaction to highlight warnings and side effects. Is that a valid reason to ban the machines? Are the objections…and the controversy…real, or is it all based on religion and politics?

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